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Safe Axe Usage

Safe Axe Usage

An axe of some description is often considered a basic part of a bushcrafter’s ‘cutting kit’ and there are an awful lot of axes out there to choose from! The type of axe you buy needs to reflect the tasks you are going to put it to. There is no point humping around a huge felling axe if you want to carve spoons, nor in carrying a mini hatchet if you want to drop large trees!

However, no matter what size axe you use, it needs to be used safely and maintained well. As a rule, your axe’s cutting edge should be kept as sharp as your knife and this edge needs protection from damage – and you need to be protected from the edge! To this end your axe should always be kept in a good guard, or mask, when it is not in use or, in between jobs, masked by chopping into the chopping block or dead stump, so that the whole edge is in the wood.

Some folk like to protect the ‘throat’ of the axe handle with a separate guard, so that inaccurate blows with the axe do not result in damage to the wood. Needless to say, an axe handle that is badly damaged should be replaced.

The basics

When using an axe, you need to think of where the axe is going and all the ‘what ifs’, as well as ensuring that you are, yourself, safe.

If you are dropping a tree or tree limb, you need to work out which way the wood will fall, ensure that your stance is secure so that you do not slip, that there is nothing (and no-one) to accidentally get hit by the axe on its way to the cut and this can mean clearing branches, twigs, brambles etc. above, below and all around your working area. It is a good idea to select an ‘escape route’ and safe area to get into as the tree/limb falls.

Sometimes the unexpected happens and the wood may not fall as you think it will, swinging around, kicking back or just falling in totally unplanned directions. Every cut with an axe should be deliberate and planned and every possible miss-hit and deflection possible considered and the resulting position of the axe head thought about. A large lump of sharp steel being swung with force on the end of a handle can inflict devastating injuries and destruction to persons and equipment if things go wrong.

More bushcrafters will spend time splitting wood for fires than cutting down full-sized trees and will, therefore, probably be using smaller axes or hatchets, which can, strangely enough, be more dangerous to use than a longer handled axe. The reason for this is that an axe with a longer haft is more likely to bury itself in the ground if a miss-hit occurs, while the shorter handled axe is short enough to clear the ground and continue on its ‘arc of travel’, to bury itself in the user’s leg!

Chip off the old block

To make splitting safer, you need a good chopping block; chopping wood resting directly on the ground is not ideal, as a lot of force will go into the ground and be wasted in ‘bounce’ and any miss-hits can wreck the axe’s cutting edge by clattering it on pebbles in the soil.

As I have wrecked knees and a bad back, I prefer a high table-height chopping block, formed by a high stump of a felled tree, so that I can work standing up, but more folk will use a low chopping block, such as a cut around of wood or a fallen log. Whatever block you use should be firm and secure and this may mean you need to peg it into place on the ground before you use it.

If you are using a low chopping block, then kneel, sit or squat rather than stand and bend, which is less stable and more prone to result in miss-hits. If you make a miss-hit when kneeling, the axe or hatchet is more likely to end up in the block or the ground than in your body.

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Place the piece of wood to be cut somewhere between the centre and far edge of the block – not on the near edge – to give the axe opportunity to hit the block, not yourself if you cut ‘short’. If the piece to be cut will not stand on its own, do not be tempted to hold it in place as you swing the axe thinking to snatch fingers out of harm’s way at the last moment – your timing and resulting number of fingers may not be perfect. It is much safer to use a ‘wooden finger’ or ‘cissy stock’ (a bad name) to hold the wood. If you choose to sit to split wood, then a good idea is to work to one side of you, so that any miss-hit does not impact on your groin or femoral arteries – both possibly having tragic results!

Various methods

For superior accuracy when splitting wood with an axe or hatchet, you can place the axe on the exact spot you wish to cut the wood and then use a wooden maul or round of wood to pound on the back of the axe head to make the split. Do not use a metal hammer or the back of another axe to hit your axe, as this can damage the axe and even split the ‘eye’ of the axe, making it only fit for the bin.

If you are making a full swing at a piece of wood to split it, try dropping your wrist arm or even whole body as the axe hits the wood, so that the axe blow, instead of swinging in an arc from your shoulder, falls almost vertically onto the wood. If you can do this, any misshits should go down into the block rather than swing towards you. Even a blow deflected sideways should go off in a way that avoids body parts.

Splitting thin, long sticks can be done safely by parallel cutting where the axe is placed on the long face of the piece of wood to be cut, the handle parallel to the grain, and both axe and wood raised and dropping together onto the block.

To chop lengths of a thin wood into usable pieces, lay the wood flat on the chopping block and cut down into it with a diagonal cut across the grain for an easier, cleaner cut. Trying to cut at 90-degrees to the grain is hard work!

Never be tempted to use the axe to cut/snap wood to length with a gap under where the axe hits – this is a recipe for bits of wood to fly into the air – or your face!

Sometimes, it is easier to split long logs lengthways by starting with an axe cut, but then using wooden wedges you have carved with your axe. Carving with an axe is quite straightforward if you choke up your grip of the axe, so that the back or ‘poll’ of the axe head is in the palm of your hand and three of your fingers around its ‘throat’ while your index finger lies on the blade to guide the cut.

Maintenance

Like all tools, an axe needs to be looked after. After each outing, I like to check my axe for any ‘dings’ in the blade and remove them with file, stone and strop before lightly oiling the head to stop any rust developing. I also check the handle for cracks or other damage. The wood will need to be oiled now and then to stop it drying out. A dry axe handle can shrink enough to allow the head to come loose and be very dangerous. Check that the wedge that spreads the wood in the axe’s eye is not loose, and re-wedge or soak the head of the axe in linseed oil to tighten everything up again if it is loose.

As I said earlier, an axe needs to be as sharp as your knife to work as efficiently as possible, but the ideal axe edge is not flat or hollow ground but ‘convex’ or like a ‘church window’ in profile. This puts a lot of metal behind the actual cutting edge and protects it from rolling or chipping.

Look after your axe or hatchet and use safe techniques with it and it will serve you well. A badly maintained axe used with poor techniques is a trip to A & E waiting to happen.

Accidents do sometimes ‘happen’, but more often they are ‘caused’ and an accident with an axe can be very serious.

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